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Lived Experience: A Perpetual Dilemma

22 May
Who could imagine that a self-described feminist would have a problem with listening to lived experiences? But I have a confession to make– I know it’s wrong, but sometimes I just don’t want to hear the stories some people tell me.
My I’m not listening wall comes to my defense when I hear several key trigger words:

“All the women I’ve ever met really want to have kids. My one friend, who said she didn’t want to have kids, got pregnant and now she loves her baby! This proves that women are biologically predisposed to parenthood!”

“My grandmother is really racist because she grew up in a different era. Her experiences excuse her racism.”

“I once met a guy who was on welfare, and he told me he would never get a job because he got paid to do nothing. Because of this experience, I believe that all jobless people are lazy.”

Do these phrases sound like something you would never ever hear? Well I assure you, I hear almost these exact words at least once a week. It happens when I teach, when I talk politics, and even when I discuss scholarly work with peers.

However, I am not writing solely to complain. Feminist research (and my own values) insist on listening to the lived experiences of others. Yet I have such a hard time listening to certain experiences, experiences that challenge my world view, that I’m starting to question my commitment to this practice.

The problem is that lived experiences can be powerful. I am on a plane and reading How Does it Feel to be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America, by Moustafa Bayoumi, a gift from a professor aware of my interest in race and prejudice in America. The book tells the lived experiences of young Arab Americans post 9/11 and shares their stories about what it means to be a problem in their own country.

I’m going to guess it feels pretty shitty.

The author uses the term lived experience often, almost as though to implicitly force readers into accepting the stories as fact, as real. Readers cannot deny that these experiences were lived by someone. They happened to someone. It’s powerful, and it would be hard to somehow argue or disagree with the ideas in this book because of its use of personal experience.

I am familiar with this technique. I use it often to convince my students and other skeptical audiences that racism is still an issue in the modern US. Lived experience acts as trap, a rhetorical maneuver that requires listeners to accept your claims or doubt your integrity.

It is nearly foolproof, and that is why it is so frustrating to encounter people who use their experiences to prove that racism, classism, sexism, doesn’t exist (or are biological, or are not widespread problems so much as individual acts perpetrated by a few people). How do you fight that (1) At all; or (2) Without being a hypocrite?

Let’s look at an example. When I teach, I often tell a story of a time I witnessed racism. Since my audience cannot deny that this experience happened (to doubt the experience is to doubt my honesty, my truthfulness) they then have to (1) Accept that the story is true, and a racist act occurred in America; and (2) Reconcile this information with their own, different experiences– experiences which they often swear contain no whiff of racism, observed or enacted.

And now, of course, you can see why I am skeptical of lived experience. I know that racism is a pervasive problem in the United States, a systematic, institutionalized issue. Research has proven this. You would have to figuratively live under a rock in order to not have witnessed any acts/effects of racism.

Racial and Ethnic Disparities Persist over Time: Poverty Rate by Race and Ethnicity, 1973-2009. Graph from the Sociological Cinema’s Facebook page.

Yet so many people, in my discussions with them about race, swear they’ve never seen any racism in their entire lives. Do I doubt their experience? Yes. But how, when I am willing to listen and value other lived experiences, such as the ones told by Bayoumi in How Does it Feel to be a Problem?

I am also bothered when people share one or two stories of observed racism and then fail to allow these moments to connect to the widespread problems of institutionalized racism. In this situation, lived experience isolates and sanitizes the discussion  and doesn’t allow the conversation to move forward to discuss larger implications of lived experiences. How can you redirect this conversation without demeaning or doubting experiences?

And furthermore, what about when someone tells you that every experience they’ve had with a certain race, or a certain gender, or a certain class, confirms one image. They tell you that all the poor people they’ve ever met have been lazy and that’s why they’re poor. And because of these experiences, they believe all poor people are lazy. And don’t deserve health care or welfare. What do you do when lived experience is used that way?

This is proof that people actually use personal experiences to justify sweeping, racist generalizations. Just in case you were skeptical. P.S This was from yesterday in Slate’s Dear Prudence column.

Sometimes I feel like if one more person tries to talk to me about their lived experiences in one of those previously listed, insufferable three ways again, I will scream. But then I feel like I am being a hypocrite. Are people only allowed to use personal experience in the ways that I decree? Am I a fascist? What gives me the right to limit how and when and why lived experiences can be used.

For now, and for the past several years, I have decided that I have some control over what assails my ears.

This is me. In dog form.

If, during my personal free time, I feel myself being pulled into a conversation heading down one of those three roads, I try to excuse myself as quickly and politely as possible. (I am not always successful at being polite).

But more and more often, as I try to escape I’m accused of being one sided.

I want to tell my accusers that I’ve heard their stories before, a thousand times, and they’re all the same and they’re all used the same way. I want to tell them that their stories have no significance to the larger conversation, often because they simply have not immersed themselves in the literature, and they have no interest in being immersed, in having their experiences connected. I want to tell them that I know that they know there is no defense against lived experience, or at least not one that works, and so they are taking advantage of my inability to escape in order to assail me with their offensive stories, and that’s not fair. I want to tell them that I’ve had successful conversations with people with differing views before; I’m not one sided. I do listen. But not to this.

But… why not to this?  How can I justify my refusal?

Feminist Solidarity in the Help: an Application of bell hooks to the Controversial Film

18 Mar

When I first watched the movie The Help, I was overwhelmed by the racist narrative of the story. In it a group of social, racist, wealthy white women are set up as the evil “mean girls” and two outcast white women, Celia and Skeeter, team up with their black maids to fight for equality. Skeeter interviews the maids and publishes their narratives anonymously, challenging the racist structure of the southern town.

I felt this was racist because the lead role was reserved for a white woman; a white woman was compiling and then narrating the voices of black women, colonizing their stories and reproducing them through a white filter; the racist women were villains in the traditional sense as they had no redeeming qualities, presenting a one-dimensional view of racism that might lead modern viewers to disregard or overlook more subconscious racism; in the end, the black women were presented as having more power than I felt was historically accurate, and also as having a close relationship based on egalitarian values with the white women. I saw this as an idealistic ending meant to alleviate the guilt and responsibility white people might feel about their role in racism.

All this, I felt, made The Help undeniably racist.

However, I am on a plane, and I am reading bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress (lent to me by my wonderful major professor.)

In this book, hooks has a chapter titled, “Holding My Sister’s Hand: Feminist Solidarity.” The chapter focuses on hooks’ experience living through racial segregation in the south and the history of antipathy she witnessed between white and black women. hooks explores the historical roots of relationships between black and white women and connects this to the lack of black, self-identified, female feminists. She then offers suggestions to help heal the rift, restoring sisterhood.

For those who are about to comment and correct my capitalization, bell hooks uses all lowercase letters in her name.

hooks writes that this anger and mutual distrust is, at first, a result of white women’s secondary role in the patriarchal system; white women saw black women as sexual competitors and as a threat to their already limited social status. She explains that white women felt little sympathy for the humiliation and degradation that black women (especially slaves) experienced at the hands of white men, and were instrumental in rejecting moves for equality through marriage or inheritance that white men might try to enact with black women.

hooks argues that this narrative resulted in the mistrust and bitterness that black women felt for white women, noting that the shared experience of womanhood did not led to sisterhood. Moreover, the rise of feminism failed to heal this rift; hooks narrates that at the advent of the feminist movement white women were disinclined to listen to or discuss racism or their role in perpetuating it. Their refusal to acknowledge this conflict, according to hooks, led to the alienation black women felt within the feminist movement.

Until white women can confront their fear and hatred of black women (and vice versa), until we can acknowledge the negative history which shapes and informs our contemporary interaction, there can be no honest, meaningful dialogue between the two groups (hooks 102)

I wonder what hooks would think of The Help. Perhaps it is possible to see the movie as recognizing the conflict between black and white women, but also as a hope that sisterhood and solidarity can overcome even the most entrenched animosities.

After all, the movie depicts two black female characters willing to overcome their bitterness towards white women in order to work together with Skeeter, an early feminist, in order to challenge a social hegemony that enacted white patriarchal values enforced by the elite white women of the community. This is precisely what hooks challenges black women to do.

hooks calls on white women to “assume responsibility for examining their own responses to race” and to “recognize the truth of racial oppression” before they can move forward in feminist, anti-racism projects (106). I’m not quite sure Skeeter does this. Maybe someone who is more familiar with the movie can help me out?

However, another interesting intersection of hooks and The Help is the character of Celia Foote. Celia is a poor white woman who marries wealthy. hooks notes that she felt as though less wealthy white women were more able to talk about an accept racial inequality:

In conversations I felt that feminist white women from non-materially privileged backgrounds often felt their understanding of class difference made it easier for them to hear women of color talk about the impact of race, of domination, without feeling threatened (hooks 108)

Celia seems to live in a world where race lines aren’t drawn, and treats Minny (her black maid) like an equal. Although this isn’t quite the same thing as being able to talk about inequality, it is still interesting that Celia seems to be one of the only white women able to have a friendship with a black woman in the movie.

It makes me wonder: Did the author of The Help read bell hooks? And if so, was she trying to create a new narrative where white women recognized their racism and used their limited power to help their black sisters overcome oppression?

Fake Some Sympathy, for PR’s Sake!

6 Mar

This past week FHM, a women’s fashion magazine in the Philippines, posted the upcoming cover of their lastest issue featuring a white model surrounded by painted black models with the caption “Stepping out of the Shadows.”

Image Courtesy of The Huffington Post

Naturally, Twitter and Facebook users were in an uproar over the implicit racism in the photo. The cover objectifies Black women and reinforces cultural stereotypes that uphold the objective goodness of white. Ruby Veridiano gives a more complete list of grievances in “An Open Letter to FHM Philippines.

Although this cover is undeniably racist, in this post I am more concerned with examining the apology released by FHM Philippines. Disclaimer: It’s not that I don’t think the racism of this post isn’t worth talking about– it absolutely is. In fact, I’m genuinely concerned that some people don’t see this as racist, considering the uncomfortable relationship the Philippines has had with colonialism.

Still, the FHM response to allegations of racism have received little media attention, and that worries me. The statements made by Bela Padillia have garnered more public criticism than FHM‘s apology, and I cannot for the life of me figure out why.

I’ve covered public relations scandals before– see my post on GoDaddy’s Super Bowl ad and to a lesser extent, my post on the ESPN Jeremy Lin scandal; however, the apology put forth by FHM was so disingenuous that I felt the need to comment more directly.

FHM released an official apology on February 27th, a letter so transparently not sorry that it’s a wonder they released any comment at all:

On Saturday, February 25, we uploaded the March issue with Bela Padilla on the cover on our Facebook page. Just hours later, a slew of comments on the supposed “racism” of the cover image and cover line flooded the magazine page, prompting the editorial team to re-examine the cover so that we could put into context its execution and assuage the concerns of our readers and non-readers as well who’ve weighed in on the issue.

We took all the points into consideration and have decided to take the side of sensitivity.

When FHM hits the stands in March it will have a different cover. We deem this to be the most prudent move in the light of the confusion over the previous cover execution.

We apologize and thank those who have raised their points. We apologize to Bela Padilla for any distress this may have caused her. In our pursuit to come up with edgier covers, we will strive to be more sensitive next time.

It wasn’t enough to put racism in scare quotes, they had to place the word supposed before it. Could FHM be any less clear that they have no respect for the opinions of their readers?

FHM seems totally unconvinced that the “flood” of readers who responded to their cover could have any credible point, preferring to believe that they are merely misunderstood by the masses.

I find it especially ineffective and ridiculous that FHM felt the need to include in their apology that they had tried to explain that the cover is not racist, but no one believed them. Their attempts to “put into context” the cover have failed to convince the public that the cover was, in fact, not racist, as there is no context in which the FHM cover could be considered not racist.

So recap: In the first paragraph, FHM has insulted their readers and implied that they are wrong. They have next admitted that their first strategy has failed, which is the only reason they are apologizing now.

In the second and third paragraphs, FHM further clarifies that they have no option other than to apologize and again insults their readers by calling them confused.

So far, this apology doesn’t seemed designed to illicit any forgiveness in angered readers. Maybe it gets better?

Nope! FHM finishes their apology with a spectacular display of rhetorical maneuvers designed to deliver as few genuine remarks of contrition as possible! The magazine apologizes to Padilla for the hate mail she’s been receiving because of their editorial decision and ends by calling the readers over-sensitive, thus blatantly insulting the public no less than three times. Not to mention, FHM has failed to apologize to people of color for their offensive cover.

If FHM thinks their readers are too unintelligent to realize when they’re being condescended to, they are sorely mistaken. In this new age of instantaneous communication, companies can no longer ignore public responses where a mass of consumers share an opinion. It’s too easy to find like-minded individuals– consumers can criticize in groups and publicly, something which can tank a company’s image.

Luckily, companies have learned to adapt, and many corporations have apologized publicly for missteps that have garnered the anger of the majority. However, there is no formula for a good apology– one cannot just say sorry and expect to be forgiven. Like in any relationship, sincere corporate apologies earn consumer forgiveness. Companies need to weigh when it is appropriate to make a full and genuine apology for the sake of their public image.

The FHM apology was neither genuine nor sincere– and the public knows it.

Speaking of apologies, what do you think of the one Sandra Fluke received? Genuine– or not? Slate’s Prudence and Ron Paul don’t think so!

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